The image of the community as ‘Spaceship’ comes up occasionally in this blog. But I think that there’s a problem with the Spaceship metaphor for communities–especially if it embraces the idea that we are looking for a few special people (‘astronauts’, ‘superstars’) to venture out into the unknown with us. In order to understand my difficulty with the this, I want to go over what’s involved in sending out a spaceship–and, by analogy, creating community. It begins with hundreds of people involved with mining various ores deep within the earth. These are taken to refineries where thousands of others work to extract metals, purify them, and mold them into parts. From there, the parts go to factories where many, many workers assemble them into spaceship components which are then shipped (by more people) to the launching site where lots and lots of NASA employees work to fit them together into the final ship.
Meanwhile, there are scientists busy figuring out the best compounds to power these ships. Many more workers pipe the fuels to the launch site where others pump them into fuel tanks. At the site engineers test and evaluate every component and if their advice and warnings are ignored, it can lead to disaster. As the astronauts enter the spaceship and wait for the countdown, everything is coordinated and monitored by dozens of flight controllers in mission control. Yet spotlight is always on the few folks in the crew compartment.
The trouble with looking at communities as spaceships and astronauts is that it’s focused on a few ‘brave heroic souls’ who dare take on this mission, and not the vast diverse team of people who work together to make all this possible. Community is not a small group of superstars, it’s a team of flawed imperfect people (because we all are) who are struggling together to build a new world. Community isn’t a spaceship or a lifeboat, it’s a living, breathing organism that needs to be nurtured and supported, and it survives and thrives when there’s a diverse group of people living and working cooperatively and collectively.
She had me from “Batman”.
It is intriguing to observe the cultural differences between the communes and New York City. On the last Point A trip, Acorn’s newest intern (who back then was called Batman) introduced herself a few dozen times over the trip. No one blinked.
It was as though they had had dozens of people call themselves Batman before. Knowing there must be some revealing or at least interesting story, none of them thought it would be appropriate to ask for it. While on the communes, this introduction reliably drives the next part of the conversation.
But the origin of Batman was problematic, it hailed from a romantic partner who was no longer in the picture. So I suggested a naming party, and she embraced the possibility. She wanted a dual purpose new name. One which could embrace the exotic strangeness and quirky freedom which the communes could offer, while also having a more mundane nickname version which she could answer the business phones with. Nickelodeon could become Nick, for example. Prof Pocket could become Po. She, having a traditionally feminine given name, also wanted something which sounded masculine.
But Batman was a cool name and some communards were reluctant to give it up. Strandbeest in particular wanted to contribute by keeping the old name with a new origin story. When Batman challenged “What will I say when people ask about my name?” Strandbeest (who is now called Jayne – along with a half dozen other things – after the Firefly character, who is apparently both stupid and mean) countered “Because I am the hero Gotham deserves”. Which in the early moments of last night’s naming party was pretty compelling and almost derailed the entire event.
There were a few other attempts at new origin stories to rescue the old cool name from the ash bin of history, but it was not to be. Our vivacious new intern had fully embraced the idea that a new name was an opportunity and was compelled by the daring prospect of having a group of friends rename her from the very long list of possibilities.
She did of course whittle down this list. She was not going to be called Styrofoam, or Lasersnake or Ronald Raygun. Though to her credit she was willing to consider Styrofoam if there was a clever Babylon acceptable nickname which was spawned. But despite our best efforts none was revealed.
Acorn does not do naming parties like Twin Oaks does. We don’t name our cars or our buildings generally. Names appear comically or organically or mysteriously without explanation. The event was well attended, perhaps because of it’s novelty but more likely because she is an unusually well-liked new addition to our colorful hyper-family.
Besides the attempted new origin story, we also tried some new things at the naming party. It is not uncommon for us to reduce the list of names thru a number of binding polls. The first is usually that you have 5 up votes and 3 down votes. As an experiment after we had done a couple of elimination rounds, we did a non-binding round with three negative votes and single positive one – just to see what people were grumpy about. The least favorites were the more bland options, such as Dylan and Neil.
In the end, we choose “Triple Threat Tony”, in part because this was a name that she herself quite liked. It satisfied the male identification aspect with Tony. It has the option of endless entertaining sub-names (I am calling her Triple Threat, others have compressed to just “Trip” or “Tone”). She will still answer to Batman, which some Acorners are unwilling to part with (perhaps this will lead to her name drifting into free fall).
And despite the name change, for me she will always be hero that Gotham needs.
WordPress has an internal trophy case where it shows you things like the number of posts you have put up (over 1200 in this case), the number of people who subscribe to your blog (currently about 100 thru WordPress specifically) and the anniversary of your blog- which apparently is 5 years right about now. It does not give me trophies for the number I seem to care about most, which is total page views. In the next month I am going to hit 500,000 – which pleases me muchly.
There are three stories in the mostly mainstream media (MSM) about which I am excited – had I more time, I would do posts on each, but there are budding new communities which are beckoning and my attention is drawn there. But because I find all these stories to be hopeful, I thought I would point them out.
Dick Cheney is the worst of what America has to offer as a politician. He is deeply corrupt, selecting himself as Bush’s VP candidate when he headed the VP selection committee, giving Halliburton billions in fraudulent Iraq War contracts when he had millions of dollars of their stock (in a blind trust) as VP. He shoots his friends in the face and then makes them apologize for being in the way. And of course torturing people. A practice which demonstrably yields almost no useful information and is ethically reprehensible.
Near the top of my list of disappointments with Obama is that he gave the entire Bush administration a pass on being responsible for their illegal actions. And after the shocking pictures at Abu Ghraib it seemed like the US was happily willing to forget these “boys being boys” despicable incidents. Now on the heels a brand new report reminding us how bad Cheney was even the NY Times is calling for an investigation.
One year after legalizing recreational use of marijuana, Colorado has become a lawless hellscape. Tax revenue is up. Crime is down. The citizens overwhelmingly approve. All the dire predictions were wrong. Just like they were about Portugal’s similar but more far reaching experiment.
And finally, the Washington post did a lovely puff piece on our industrious seed business.
While on the recent Point A trip, a hybrid group of Catalonyians and Acorn-affiliates met in the cozy basement room of a bodywork studio in Brooklyn. Paxus introduced this group of charismatic New Yorkers and communards to the transparency tools.
The Catalysts are an incredibly clever bunch. These folks know that if they do a good job crafting their agreements and cultural fabric, they can create an amazing eco-village. And while they are a fundamentally fun loving and playful crowd, community building is difficult work and they have been hard at it. Especially drafting written agreements- for everything. For land ownership, for the membership process, for the types of cottage industries that might happen, the mission statement- the tasks go on and on. Important, complex and often slogging work.
This is not actually what this group of people wants to be doing. What they want to be doing is falling in love. This is where the transparency tools come in.
I have experience with some of the transparency tools used, as I used to be part of a meditation community in DC in which we met 2x a month to have a sit followed by a discussion.
Often in this format and during retreats (which happen twice a year) we used the “If you really knew me…” and Hot Seat tools. I’ve already witnessed how effective they can be in bringing a group together, and it was no different with the Catalysts.
Frequently when starting, it takes a round or two of “If you really knew me” statements for everyone to start to open up. What was so beautiful about this night in particular was each person became transparent almost immediately. People were sharing their stories with each other so willingly and with so much faith that the group wanted to hear them.
We transitioned from “If you really knew me” statements to Hot Seats, the Catalysts asking questions and Paxus explaining the benefits of the many tools.
Due to the wacky Point A trip agenda and time constraints, we were only able to fit in three 5-minute Hot Seats. The group did an excellent job being clear with their questions and answers, and everyone involved continued to be engaged.
To wrap up the evening, Paxus began to explain the tools that go beyond being personally transparent and begin to create transparency in relationships. Specifically, these tools are Unsaids and Withholds. These tools can create space for resolution of conflict as well as giving members an opportunity to appreciate one another. They are also notoriously tricky.
This point in the evening is when things really got interesting. Despite Pax expecting to solely explain Unsaids/Withholds and not try to do any that evening, members of the group began to use the tools without any hesitation. Several conflicts were put on the path to resolution within ten minutes, with the tools used practically flawlessly.
What then evolved seemingly naturally- after what could be seen as complaining or criticism of the Withholds- was the graceful move into appreciations, which were equally rich and revealing. As we left it was clear the group wanted more. The Point A crowd- which are in some sense carpetbaggers from Virginia trying to build community in NYC- felt like we had really done our job.
I have always wanted to hang a jury. I have been fortunate that all my court appearances (except the Acorn Arson) have been elective – I chose to get arrested. But I have never had a real chance to hang a jury, until today. I have been guilty of dozens of trespass charges against me and I have never argued that point. To hang a jury I need to get at least one positive answer to the question “Has the injustice I am fighting directly impacted at least one member of the jury intimately?” For nuclear power or a pending war the jury is usually quite removed from these issues.
Today I was on trial for our highly publicized arrests at the UVA fraternities last November protesting their support and participation in rape culture. Someone on this jury has been touched by this crime. Some sister or daughter or dear friend has been sexually assaulted and this juror has watched helplessly as their loved ones’ life unraveled.
I desperately wanted to remind this juror of their pain and their frustration with the broken legal system which oppressed their intimate and generally ignores this crime. I wanted to beg them, in the name of their friend, to see past the trivial trespass and instead see how this court, police and culture helps perpetuate this problem. I wanted to call for the system to be put on trial, not me.
Tragically, the odds would be heavily in my favor. Statistically, with twelve jurors, my chances that at least one of them would have gone through this ordeal are nearly 100%. Sexual assault is endemic in the US and the powers that be are mostly uninterested in addressing it in any meaningful way.
Sadly, I did not do it today. Fighting in the courts is a long and time consuming process. Judges are quite resistant to cases looking outside the specifics of the charges before them. And the court fees associated with a failed not guilty plea would exceed $1000 because the defendant must pay the jury stipend. This is a chunk of change on the commune stipend. Instead, like my co-defendants I plead guilty and was given 44 hours of community service. At the trial I read the following statement:
For our non-violent protest against rapes at UVA we were swiftly arrested. Yet repeated reports of sexual assaults on campus are ignored by the university and Charlottesville police department. I plan to do my community service for an organization which is working to address this injustice.
The first time i got arrested I made friends with an impressive man named Louis Corn. He was in his 70s and had been arrested many times for protest. When I asked him why, he said “Well, this body is not much good for hard work no more. But I can still throw it onto an unjust state.” I don’t do that much hard physical work, but I am looking forward to the day when I can take the chance my inspiring old friend did regularly and try to hang a jury and embolden others to fight for justice.
It is busy season.
Most of my days start the same way. Jah and i find each other somewhere between his blueberry pancakes (he often does a breakfast shift, despite the fact we have no agreement anyone will cook breakfast) and the smoke shack at Acorn. We go into the seed picking room and stare down a huge collection of orders. Then, we sort them, taking the smallest ones (typically 5 items or less) and put them in one pile the rest in another.
Now our dance begins. Jah and i spin around the seed picking room, grabbing orders and dodging each other. Jah is especially good with large orders, strong solid picking. The nature of small orders is that you are running around the room a bunch and (if you are like me) trying to fill several orders as once, so you can avoid doubling back.
Jah is the elephant knocking down huge trays of seeds. I am the bee, buzzing around him and flying around the room. We move with haste, people get bumped into occasionally and brushed up against all the time, it’s is just what is happening in the busy seed picking office early in the morning. We are regulars, but there are lots of people in the picking room these days. The late night crew picked orders at 2 AM this morning. Aster, Sunshine and Jah were part of that. Para and Lola were in this morning with us. Picking seeds for orders is the beginning of our order fulfillment process.
Anyone who has worked in the tofu hut (or has studied industrial engineering) knows that the first step of the assembly line is the heartbeat of the entire process. The full line can’t go any faster. And the speed of the first step often drives the speed of the entire line. We want to pick everything that comes in during the say the same day. This insures that the shippers (who make custom bundles for mailing of our picked orders) are always busy, if there is anything for them to process. Jah and i are determined to keep the picking room heartbeat thumping right along.
Sales are up. We are picking and packing much faster (in part because some packing is being done by the new seed packing robot, which some of us are referring to as HAL) than previous years. Almost all the varieties are in stock. Ken and Irena and Charlotte are making sure all varieties are packed and ready for us (which is why there are so few numbers on the daily Unpickable Seeds sheets depicted below). It feels like a well oiled machine.
And it feels like an anarchist Utopian dream. Almost all the workers are self assigning almost all the time. There are people, like Irena, Ira, Ken and myself who almost always have tasks which people can help with. Sometimes we are approached, other times we approach people. And especially during this season, when everyone is hustling, almost everyone says “yes” most of the time when asked if they can help. [Ken points out that accountability of task work also helps us maintain quality. At each step the worker records what they did so that workers further down the chain can gently inform folks earlier in the process about mistakes they made. ]
The structure is almost as flat as it can be. It is trust based, so there are no time clocks. It is trust based, so no one is telling you to work faster or longer. It is trust based, so you need to do your own quality control. It is trust based, so for most people the only person who really knows if you are doing your share is you. And it all mostly works.
People work because it is clear there is lots of work to do. People work because we make most of the money the community needs and uses in these few months. People work because the work is super pleasant and relaxed and better than any light physical work than anyone ever had before they got here, and there is this distant fear that if we don’t all do our parts here, some of us might end up back there in jobs which were considerably less wonderful. People work because they can stop when they like and switch jobs when they want to. People work because they want to show up in community as a contributor to this thing that they believe in.
Turns out the money thing is not all it is cracked up to be.